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Sports Artist LeRoy Neiman, Official Painter of Five Olympics, Dies at Age 91

LeRoy Neiman - P 2012
Getty Images

He also worked on the Super Bowl for CBS, created Playboy's Party Jokes page mascot Femlin and did portraits of such figures as Frank Sinatra, Joe Namath and Babe Ruth.

Painter and sketch artist LeRoy Neiman, best known for evoking the kinetic energy of the world's biggest sporting and leisure events with bright quick strokes, died Wednesday. He was 91.

Neiman was the official painter of five Olympiads and was a contributing artist at Playboy magazine for many years. His longtime publicist, Gail Parenteau, confirmed his death at a Manhattan hospital on Wednesday but didn't disclose the cause.

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Neiman was a media-savvy artist who knew how to enthrall audiences with his instant renditions of what he observed. In 1972, he sketched the world chess tournament between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a live television audience. He also produced live drawings of the Olympics for TV and was the official computer artist of the Super Bowl for CBS.

Neiman's "reportage of history and the passing scene ... revived an almost lost and time-honored art form," according to a 1972 exhibit catalog of his Olympics sketches at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Neiman's paintings, many executed in household enamel paints that allowed him his fast-moving strokes, are an explosion in reds, blues, pinks, greens and yellows of pure kinetic energy. The St. Paul, Minn., native worked in many media, producing thousands of etchings, lithographs and silkscreen prints known as serigraphy.

Neiman's critics said his forays into the commercial world minimized him as a serious artist. At Playboy, for example, he created Femlin, the well-endowed nude that has graced the magazine's Party Jokes page since 1957.

Neiman shrugged off such criticism.

"I can easily ignore my detractors and feel the people who respond favorably," he said in a June 2008 interview with the Associated Press.

 

Neiman was fascinated with large game animals and said he twice traveled to Kenya to paint lions and elephants "in the bush" in his trademark vibrant palette. But it was the essence of a basketball or football game, swim meet or cycling event that captured his imagination most.

"For an artist, watching a (Joe) Namath throw a football or a Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or leading political figure," Neiman said in 1972.

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With his sketchbook and pencil, trademark handlebar mustache and slicked back hair, Neiman was instantly recognizable. At a New York Jets game at Shea Stadium in 1975, fans yelled, "Put LeRoy in," when the play wasn't going their way.

Neiman's decades-long association with Playboy began in 1953 following a chance meeting with Hugh Hefner. It was the start of what he called "the good life" and inspiration for much of his future work.

He regularly contributed to the magazine's "Man at His Leisure" feature, which took him to such places as the Grand National Steeplechase and Ascot in England, the Cannes Film Festival in France and the Grand Prix auto race in Monaco.

Neiman was a World War II veteran who participated in the invasion of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was a self-described workaholic who seldom took vacations and had no hobbies. He worked daily in his home studio at the Hotel des Artistes near Central Park, which he shared with his wife.

One of his projects, a 160-foot-long sports mural, hung in the Sports Museum of America in Manhattan.

Neiman also was a portraitist who captured some of the world's most iconic figures, Frank Sinatra and Babe Ruth among them, in a style that conveyed their public image.

One face he recorded over and over again was that of Muhammad Ali. Those paintings and sketches, representing 15 years of the prizefighter's professional life, permanently reside at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.

Neiman is survived by his wife of 55 years, Janet Byrne Neiman.